Badminton-crazy Malaysia would have normally been riveted to a live broadcast of a Thomas Cup fixture against long-time rivals India. But as the men’s team battled, and was eventually defeated, on Thursday night, the country’s attention was elsewhere, with social media buzzing over the highly anticipated and much-watched US-style ‘grand debate’ between scandal-haunted ex-prime minister Najib Razak and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Observers dubbed the televised war of words to be one of the most high-profile public appearances for Najib since his stunning defeat in 2018’s election, which was followed by his 2020 conviction in the first of several cases linking him to the multibillion dollar 1MDB investment fund corruption scandal. He received a 12-year jail sentence but is currently on bail pending an appeal to the country’s highest court. Some analysts and social media commentators wondered just what was achieved in Thursday’s high-profile 90-minute spectacle, with most local media offering live updates on the event as if it were an election debate. “It doesn’t matter who presented the better argument, that was always secondary. The main gain for both Anwar and Najib is that they can now go back to their respective vote bases and claim the win. Anwar can spin tales of leadership, while Najib of relevance,” said public policy analyst Harris Zainul. With the debate anchored on whether cash-strapped oil and gas firm Sapura Energy should be bailed out, the former premier had a pro-bailout stance and an optimistic view, saying the business could be as successful as a South Korean conglomerate if given the chance to thrive. He also said the company should be saved as it is owned by the government’s investment arm, meaning Malaysian taxpayers’ money is on the line. “If Sapura goes bankrupt, the one to lose is the Malaysian people,” said Najib, in his trademark navy blue suit. Previously known to avoid public debates – including 2015’s ‘Nothing to Hide’ discussion about 1MDB, which would have been with his former mentor Mahathir Mohamad if it had actually happened – Najib appeared well rehearsed and confident on Thursday. He mostly explained his ideas within the time allowed and often peppered his points with catchphrases like ‘transformation’ and ‘1Malaysia’, common during his nine years in charge of the country. In the discussion Najib, who also held other portfolios, including finance, focused on the need to save jobs and boost the economy through the likes of mega projects – a feature of his administration – and said bailouts could be profitable ventures in the long run. Why is a Malaysian judge who convicted Najib being investigated for corruption? He also took the opportunity to reiterate his populist stance, saying his oft-criticised sound bite “cash is king” was meant in the sense of public good. “The king is the people! Because to help people, the best method is direct cash transfer,” said Najib, famous for handing out money during his time in office. On the other hand, sticking to his long-standing political platform of reform, Anwar hammered home the idea of good governance, pushing for a forensic audit of Sapura Energy to pinpoint what went wrong there. Anwar, who, like Najib, was also a finance minister, argued that what is happening at the company is a symptom of a wider issue with corporate mismanagement in general, pointing at other firms that have been, or are, badly affected. Instead of bailing out the organisation, Anwar said, it should be left to its own devices, which would serve as a cautionary tale. He also argued that it is morally wrong to let incompetent bosses off the hook solely to save a business venture. “Find a credible person, find someone with integrity, find someone who loathes corruption, this is what will save our country and our companies!” said a fired up Anwar. Will Anwar-Najib debate revive Malaysia’s old theatrical style of politics? A widely shared reaction among Malaysians on Twitter summarised the debate as Najib having an idealistic approach, and Anwar being a realist. “Najib talks about what people want to hear while Anwar talks about what people have to realise,” wrote Twitter user Kylox. While barred by the moderator from making personal attacks on opponents or commenting on ongoing court cases – 1MDB – Anwar nevertheless took a swipe at Najib. He quoted the country’s second prime minister Tun Abdul Razak, Najib’s father, who said in 1961 that “communism, communalism and corruption” were threats challenging the newly independent former British protectorate. “Corruption now is worse than what could be postulated by him,” added Anwar. Najib later quoted his father himself, likening the country’s wealth to a cake. He said the cake needed to be enlarged so it can be meaningfully sliced and distributed to the people, and he blamed Anwar’s camp for not only shrinking the cake but “also selling the oven”. His cake analogy was quickly mocked by the public, with many people noting that ‘cakes’ was the code word used by the alleged 1MDB scandal mastermind Jho Low to describe bribes, including to Najib’s wife Rosmah Mansor, in his online chats with disgraced Goldman Sachs banker Tim Leissner. Malaysia’s race divide in spotlight as fatal illegal bicycles case reopens Anwar also mocked his opponent’s use of ‘cakes’, saying “it’s best not to eat it all alone”. However, while the opposition leader is known to be a great orator, some commentators thought his debate performance was below par, with him more focused on Najib’s scandals than laying out a plan for the country. “I was hoping for more data and factual points from Anwar Ibrahim … but it’s obvious his strategy was on Najib Razak’s scandals,” said lawyer and legal activist New Sin Yew. Malaysia 1MDB scandal: a guide to the key figures from Roger Ng’s trial Similarly, political observer Wan Agyl Wan Hassan wondered if the opposition chief was overconfident. “I always believe that Anwar Ibrahim is a good debater but not tonight. He failed to structure his arguments properly,” he said. While noting that Najib seemed to deliver his arguments better, and Anwar appeared “angry”, long-time Malaysian political watcher James Chin said that arguing who beat who was a moot point as both figures were preaching to their own choirs. “Najib didn’t veer far from his talking points, he needs to project a positive image to win back the federal government. Anwar, instead, needs to portray that everything is falling apart,” said Chin. Najib’s former political secretary, Oh Ei Sun, now a political analyst, also said that supporters on both sides would come away with the impression that their respective icons had won, while ‘fence-sitters’ were treated to entertainment. But being best in a discussion and getting people to vote were two very different things, he added. Lawmaker Sim Tze Tzin said that, ultimately, this kind of televised, live debate helps to keep democracy flourishing, and he called for more of them so voters can gauge both the direction the country is headed and the thought processes of its political leaders. He hoped a ‘grand debate’ would soon take place between current prime minister Ismail Sabri, representing the Malay nationalist party Umno, and Anwar Ibrahim from the Pakatan Harapan coalition.